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October 30

Higher Education Website Organization: Start with the Big Three Questions


How well does your higher ed website serve the needs of your most valued digital visitors? That all depends on your approach to website organization.

This is a big topic with many questions to answer. Let’s focus on the Big Three that should come first and foremost:

  • Who is our website primarily built to serve?
  • Why are they here?
  • How can we help them?

It’s only with the answers to these questions that you can hope to organize your website in a way that facilitates a positive user experience.

This is about more than how your pages are arranged (which will be the top-tier “parent” pages, which will be the second-tier “child” pages, and so on).

These questions also help you decide what content to lead with, how much detail to include, what content to link out to, how to organize content on each page, and much more.

Answering the Big Three questions should provide plenty of insight to guide those decisions. 

Tackling the Big Three Website Organization Questions

Never start this conversation with, “What should we include in our website?”

If I were you, I wouldn’t know where to begin to answer that. I’d be completely overwhelmed with competing ideas about what goes in, how big the site should be, etc.

It’s too easy for internal stakeholders to steer that conversation toward serving their conflicting needs. 

That’s just human nature. We all tend to think, “What’s in it for me?” 

WIIFM (“whiff-em”) should be the dominant question to consider. You just have to frame the question from the perspective of the visitor.

That’s how you get started building a guiding framework. 

Question 1: Who is our website primarily built to serve?

This might be a hot topic for debate within your institution. For most, both the mission and fiscal realities point to one audience above all others: the prospective student.

It’s vital to serve the needs of current students, of course, from internal communications to digital learning platforms. But that’s a completely different conversation.

First and foremost, your website is an externally-facing enrollment gateway, a front door beckoning next year’s crop of students into the fold.

If you can agree on that, the next step is to build at least one persona of your perfect prospect, a fictional person inspired by real students with desirable characteristics.

Getting Started with Personas

You don’t have to get too specific when you’re just getting started with this. A great start would be:

  • Name (like “Traditional Student Tamara”)
  • Sex (female)
  • Age (18)

I’ll stop there to point out that the idea is not to exclude other demographic groups you serve. “Tamara” is female not because you don’t accept male students but because you need something to work from. Adding a headshot of a student model is a great idea.

The point is to make your persona feel real enough that you can put yourself in their shoes, imagine their experience. 

From there, add qualities to your persona that would make them a fantastic fit for your school. Many schools find that thinking in terms of shared values, or “mission fit,” is helpful.

Mission Fit Personas

A private Christian college might add the following to their persona:

  • Evangelical
  • Purpose-driven
  • Service-minded

Mission fit isn’t exclusive to religious institutions. Other schools might have a very different set of desirable characteristics:

  • First-generation college student
  • Income-focused
  • Career-driven

Hopefully, you’re starting to see how powerful this question is when it comes to website organization – from the Home page to program pages and everything else. 

Let’s keep going.

Question 2: Why are they here?

This goes beyond who your prospect is to where they are in the buyer’s journey.

(If you’re uncomfortable with referring to students as “buyers,” I understand. But the truth is that they’re about to make one of the biggest purchases of their lives. This is a helpful framework.)

  • Awareness: “Give me a little info to persuade me to learn more.”
  • Consideration: “I’m ready to learn more. Help me make an informed decision.”
  • Decision: “I’m almost ready to commit. Drive home the benefits and convince me.”

Always assume Tamara is at the awareness stage when she comes to your website. Most visitors are.

This means your top priority is to address her high-level, personally meaningful WIIFM questions. Depending on how you’ve written your persona, these may or may not be:

  • Can you help me find my place in the world?
  • Are there people like me there? Will I feel like I belong?
  • Is your school known for helping students with the kind of thing I’m into (like science)?
  • How financially secure can I expect to be with one of your degrees?

Start by empathizing with your persona at the awareness phase. Imagine what they might care about at this point – fulfilling their dreams, alleviating fears, and so on.

This will guide not only how to present content at popular entry points like your Home page. It will also guide decisions about what links to provide, what you would want to see or read next if you were Tamara.

Question 3: How can we help them?

By now, it should be crystal clear that website organization is about prioritizing what Tamara wants and needs to see most.

Content that answers those WIIFM questions should be featured so that those answers are right at her fingertips, with little to no digging required.

Too much else can easily overwhelm her and become a distraction now. 

Let detailed info fall into the background, available for her and her parents to access at later stages (consideration, decision). Once she narrows down her list of schools and puts you on the shortlist, she’ll be ready and willing to do a little digging to get more details.

I’m talking about web structure and on-page content organization:

  • Web Structure – Make pages focused on consideration-phase details second- or third-tier child pages.
  • On-Page Content – Put answers to WIIFM questions at the top, push details down, move to other pages, or remove entirely.

I’ll give you a few examples of what might overwhelm and frustrate your awareness-stage prospects. 

Avoid These 3 Website Organization Turn-Offs for Your Prospects

There are many ways you can frustrate prospects with information overload and/or steps in their discovery process they’re not yet willing to tolerate. These are just a few examples I’ve seen on other sites.

1. Organizing by Departmental Structure

Let’s say Tamara is interested in criminal justice. A page with introductory info about that program is one of the first places she’ll want and need to go. It will answer a key WIIFM question.

She doesn’t know, nor does she especially care, what department it’s in (Humanities? Psychology? History?). 

But if your program pages are arranged strictly by department, you’re forcing her to sift through information she doesn’t need to get where she needs to go.

A program finder tool, like this one on Loma Linda University’s website, would be helpful. Whether or not you have a tool like this, user-friendly organization can do wonders for helping her get to what she needs. 

Consider categorizing your programs in a way that feels natural to a prospect. Put criminal under something like Crime, Law, and Justice, whether or not you have a Crime, Law, and Justice department. Or just list all your programs alphabetically.

Other Benefits

  • This also helps optimize your site for search engines. A structure that Google bots can easily scan makes your program pages more discoverable and gives your site better visibility.
  • And it improves accessibility for visually impaired users. A simpler structure helps prospects with visual impairments, who rely on voice-command screen readers, to more quickly find what they need.

2. Leading with Too Many of Your Accomplishments

Just as a general rule of thumb, the pages that awareness-phase prospects are most likely to look at should not focus on you and what makes your school great.

If Tamara’s first impression is mostly about how many graduates you produce, the awards your faculty have won, the huge donation you just received, etc., she’ll wonder where she fits in.

On pages like Home, Academics, and program pages, the focus should be on what your school can do for the prospect.

Some stats can be useful, like:

  • Acceptance rate 
  • The portion of students who received financial aid 
  • Job placement rate within a year of graduation

Just don’t go overboard. Even when you choose stats in an effort to answer WIIFM questions, using too many still feels like noisily gloating when you’re trying to extend a warm invitation.

3. Displaying All Your Campus Events

Tamara doesn’t need to see a news feed with campus events for current students that she’s not invited to attend. Not at the awareness stage.

In later stages, she might be interested to know what she could participate in as a student.

It’s just too much information right now.

If you’re going to feature a news feed early in the journey (on a top-tier page), it should be curated. The only news and events Tamara should see are the ones that help answer her WIIFM questions.

  • Recruiting events
  • Financial aid seminars
  • Open houses

In other words, remember who your website serves primarily – prospects – and tailor the news and events you post on your digital front door accordingly.

Current students should be on email lists, following social media channels, and able to access a portal – all channels where they can get all those details. That info is not a top-tier priority for Tamara.

Use the Who, Why, How framework to think through website organization in terms of the prospect’s digital journey.

This is a great way to start the conversation. What it isn’t is a roadmap to a single, perfect structure for your website organization, a.k.a. information architecture.

There are several approaches you could take, pretty standard or a little outside-the-box. 

The important thing is to remember to maintain a focus on answering your prospect’s question, “What’s in it for me?” and removing as many distractions or roadblocks as possible.

If you’d like more in-depth help with your next website redevelopment, don’t hesitate to reach out. 

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Featured image by Kateryna via Adobe Stock

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